CEDAR FALLS — Northern Iowa will celebrate 12 seniors as it hosts Western Illinois (1-10, 1-6) Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
No. 9 UNI (7-4, 5-2) lost last season’s matchup against the Leathernecks 37-17. Western Illinois is coming off a 45-21 loss vs. Southern Illinois and its only win this season came in week 10, 38-34, over South Dakota.
Here are three things to watch for in Saturday’s game.
1. Who produces?
Without star receiver Isiah Weston (lower body) and starting running back Tyler Hoosman (ankle) last week, UNI’s offense struggled to consistently move the ball. Now, with a week of experience playing shorthanded, coach Mark Farley and his staff are not positioned to once again point toward a lack of personnel for offensive struggles as it did after its loss to South Dakota State.
Whether it requires turning redshirt freshman QB Will McElvain loose, or giving more opportunities to running back Sam Schnee, a lack of offensive production against Missouri Valley Football Conference cellar dweller Western Illinois would be an unquestionable indictment of the Panthers’ offense ahead of the FCS Playoffs.
2. Playoff statement
While UNI doesn’t have a reputation for racking up points against its least competitive opponents, it may be worth whatever risk it could include for the Panthers to pour it on, as it sits just outside the FCS’ top-eight teams that will receive a first round bye in the playoffs.
UNI’s largest margin of victory this season was a 23-point win at Missouri State, so a 30-plus point win against the MVFC’s doormat could help silence any doubters.
3. Rest for ailing starters?
As a three-plus touchdown favorite against the Leathernecks, it’s fair to wonder if any UNI regulars will, or should be, rested in the regular-season finale. Chris Kolarevic — who returned in week 5 at Weber State — missed the Panthers’ week 9 game at Missouri State with lingering issues in his foot. Meanwhile, nose tackle Jared Brinkman has battled lower body bumps and bruises throughout the season.
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So, considering Western Illinois’ lack of competitiveness this season, it seems fair to consider that Kolarevic, Brinkman and others could stand to benefit from being held out against the Leathernecks.
UNI vs. Western Illinois
Time: 1 p.m.
Watch online: ESPN3
Radio: KGYM-AM 1600
Listen online: TuneIn
Line: UNI -23.5
Prediction: UNI 34 Western Illinois 7
UNI churns out yardage on the ground and through the air with a shorthanded group against the struggling Leathernecks. However, it comes up well short of what should be a 50-plus point day inside the UNI-Dome against the MVFC’s unquestioned worst team.